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Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness gets under your skin and stuns the reader with its honest portrayal of the brutality of real life events, even if in the form of fiction.
Is it possible to tell a story without yourself getting lost in it? Is it possible to tell a story that you have not felt in your veins? Is it possible to tell a story without being true to your inner conscience? A story reflects your life, your personality, your fears, your loss, your triumph, your innermost self.
I am only talking about authors who are true to their story. The rest I consider as part of the industry of commercial writings – the one where authors are paid to churn out keeping in mind the readership and popularity. The real stories that touch us come from within. It cannot be just told without being affected deeply by it. Writing a story is like giving birth; it alters something inside you forever.
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When I read Arundhati Roy’s first fiction story The God Of Small Things, it blew me away. The words lingered on for days; the characters Estha and Rahel stayed etched in my memory forever. It was nothing like I had read before. It was the full force of the storm of a childhood pent up, lived and imagined. It could have been written only by her. I can read it all over again today and still feel the hair at the back of my neck stand up, feel my eyes become moist. It was as though I was with her, I felt like I knew Rahel. I would have liked to believe that Rahel was Arundhati (although she has denied it).
Through the years, I grew with her, my thoughts matured by my new learnings and augmented by her bold essays. She wrote passionately about issues, about injustice in society. She took positions just as a good writer always should. She did not distance herself from the people; in fact she lived with them as she wrote about them. It was only natural that she chose to write essays and not fiction. When you see the world around you burning and blowing apart, you are compelled to speak the truth – as naked as it is; without having to clothe it with decorations and hide it behind the screen of fiction.
Once known as the poster girl of Indian English writing, she was soon criticized for her views, taped with sedition charges and discarded as a maoist sympathizer. But nobody could prove what she wrote was untrue. It was just that these were truths that would shake the very foundation of civilized societies. And had to be sugar coated or swept away under the carpet and forgotten. Throughout, her writing style, her choice of words only grew better and stronger. And I enjoyed her essays as much as her story.
Then after twenty years, she wrote a book again that was fiction. It was much awaited, and however incorrect it may seem, I knew it would be compared with her previous work of fiction. Reading her work so far, I felt like I knew her.
Her new book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness comes across as a brief history of contemporary India in a nutshell, with special emphasis given to the violence in society. The language is bitter and sarcastic (extreme at times). I can almost imagine her wicked smile as she wrote some of those lines. It talks about facts – nothing distorted. The characters who narrate the story might be fictional, but there ends the fiction in this book. Rest of the events are just facts; this makes it so chilling. We know that these are not just stories. They are real people she might have met and known.
From a pure literary point of view, she does not do full justice to the narration, the coherence of story line and character building – all essential for a story to hold the reader’s attention and take them till the end. It is very easy to get bored at several points. But more importantly, it is deeply disturbing. I had to pause reading after Anjum speaks about her experience in the Gujarat mob violence. To cry. To feel ashamed. To become brave enough to look at the mirror again.
The writing is ruthless. Just as the violence itself. It takes a lot of effort to continue reading this book. It is not a thriller. You already know the story. And that makes it scary. You know what is coming. You can almost hear yourself telling “Oh God, no!” But it does not stop. The parts about violence against civilians in Kashmir is probably content that nobody would dare to read. They would just put it away and not see it. It is difficult to face this. The story is told in a way that keeps the main characters vulnerable, helpless, and miserably getting caught deeper and deeper into the web.
Like the blurb of the book asks “How to tell a shattered story?” I think that is the main question. The story itself is not rosy. Can it be told in a way that will appeal to the reader and create a ‘feel good’ factor? Sadly, it cannot be. She had to say it as she saw it. Else it would be injustice to her characters who have lived this story. Like the Kashmiri boy who begs the reporter to tell his story as it is and not as the military wants it to be told.
One can argue then where is the fiction? It is missing. Just as thousands of people in Kashmir. Any hopes of a repeat of her earlier story evaporates as we turn the pages. One would always be tempted to go back and compare her two fiction works. But there isn’t any. The ten years of her life spent with real people and real issues wipe away the innocence of childhood found in The God of Small Things. Because, a true author cannot paint a canvas with vibrant colours when her surroundings are filled with filth and blood. The violence stains your soul. The injustice you witness alters your being. And, if you are not altered, you are not a writer. You are not even a human being.
So, to expect Arundhati to put all this behind her and just write a good story would be presumptuous. But to expect it to be written in a coherent, story like way is plausible. Only if you can, even momentarily, be cognizant of the fact that you need to present the truth in the form of a prose that is consumable by readers who might not have even known these stories. And that is a choice. It is the author’s discretion how she chooses to write. And for some authors, it might not even be a choice. You are pregnant with words inside you, growing with every passing day. And finally a time comes when it becomes impossible to bear the weight and it has to be pushed out. The baby has to be delivered. And she has been. Now, whether baby will be rejected like Tilo in her story or cared for is the collective responsibility of the readers and the society.
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Top image via YouTube and book cover via Amazon
Sharada loves to travel the world, is passionate about reading and writing. She volunteers with
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